By Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann
Stuffy noses, coughs and sore throats. Why does it seem like your children are sick all winter long? Is it safe to send them to school? Are they contagious? When should I call the pediatrician?
I get asked these questions daily, especially during the winter months. More than likely your family will experience at least one illness this winter. However, there are ways to help protect them during cold and flu season and ease their misery if they do get sick.
If you haven’t already vaccinated your entire family against the flu, what are you waiting for? Flu vaccines are now recommended for everyone over 6 months of age. Other than a sore arm, side effects are rare. And contrary to popular belief, you can’t catch the flu from the flu vaccine. Scared of needles? The nasal spray flu vaccine, Flumist, is another option for healthy kids over 5 years of age.
There’s no vaccine to prevent the other bugs your children bring home every winter. Frequent hand washing is the best and only method. The good news is that most of the illnesses kids catch are viral, rarely dangerous and will clear up on their own. Antibiotics do not help and cough and cold medications aren’t very useful nor recommended for infants and toddlers. So what can you do to ease the suffering? A cool mist humidifier may help stuffy noses. Popsicles sooth sore throats. Fever reducers can relief discomfort from a high temperature. That leaves plenty of fluids and rest as the best medicine for the common cold.
Healthy kids can catch up to 11 infections a year, especially if they are in day care or school. Since during the summer they are mostly well, every two or three weeks during the winter they may bring home a new bug. They pick up the colds from their friends or classmates since viruses can survive on surfaces for hours and spread easily from person to person. Often children are contagious before they become symptomatic. So even with strict day care rules about keeping sick ones home, infections can still be transmitted.
If you kept your child home every time he had the sniffles he’d never be in school. And the older he gets, the harder it is to make up missed schoolwork. So if he feels okay and doesn’t have a fever, he should be in school. But, if your child has a fever (temperature over 100.3), is vomiting, has pain interfering with activity or he really isn’t feeling well, keep him at home. You know your child best, so if you think something is wrong, don’t send him to school. If you’re concerned, call your pediatrician.
Parents often tell me they thought about calling, but didn’t want to be a bother. I would rather take a few minutes to reassure you that your toddler’s cold symptoms will improve on their own than to not have you call about your sick 8 month old who really needs to be seen. Call your pediatrician if your child has a cold not improving after a week, worsening cough, trouble breathing, any fever for 5 days, high fever (104F), pain interfering with activity, is lethargic, unable to keep fluids down or just doesn’t look well.
Since infants, especially those under 3 months, can become seriously ill very quickly, call your pediatrician if your baby has a fever (temperature over 100.3), isn’t feeding well, is excessively fussy or sleepy. Some infections, such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), that often only cause a goopy, runny nose in older kids can be life threatening for infants. So keep your newborn away from toddlers and preschoolers as much as possible. If they must have contact, teach them to touch or kiss your baby’s feet instead of her face. Enforce strict hand washing guidelines (even for adults) before anyone handles your newborn.
Frequent hand washing is better than an apple a day. So make sure everyone at home washes their hands, especially before they eat or rub their eyes or nose—the three most common entry points for bugs. Using an alcohol based hand sanitizer helps too. Frequent hand washing and flu vaccines along with a healthy diet, exercise, plenty of sleep and regular check ups can help your family beat the winter bugs.